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Adventures of a cat whis.., p.5
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       Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, p.5

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  "You are Chicken Nancy, I presume?" the professor said.

  The old lady nodded.

  "This is Molly," the professor said.

  "You are welcome, Molly," Chicken Nancy said. Her voice was clear and nice to listen to. She had a slight accent, which the professor later told me was Dutch. "You are a fairly long way from the mountains where your ancient dwergish people live. I will make you a cup of tea and remove the slight confusion from your head. Would you like that?"

  Molly said she would like it very much.

  "And this is Audrey," the professor said.

  "Audrey. It's been nearly a hundred years since I saw anyone like you. Come into the house, all of you, and we will have a nice visit."

  The inside of the house was even tidier and neater than the outside. The floor was made of brick, the walls were whitewashed, the furniture was wooden, simple and primitive, there were bunches of dried herbs and flowers hanging from the rafters, and there was an iron kettle hanging from a hook in a little stone fireplace and making steam.

  Chicken Nancy was quite tall when she stood up. "The kettle is just boiling. I will make tea for all of us, and special tea for this crazy girl. You, Professor, prefer to remain crazy, I believe."

  "Yes, I am quite accustomed to it," the professor said. "And I was not as happy when I was sane."

  "I understand," Chicken Nancy said. "I was crazy myself for twenty-five or thirty years. It can be pleasant if you have the right kind."

  "I have the wrong kind," Molly said.

  "Hush. It will be taken care of," Chicken Nancy said. "Now, you came to ask me about something. Please sit at my table, and I will help you if I can."

  "We wanted to know about the Vliegende-Schotel mansion," I said.

  "I know everything about it. What did you want to know?"

  "Everything."

  "Fine. I will tell you everything. First, its right name is not the Vliegende-Schotel mansion."

  "It's not?" the professor asked. "I thought it was so named because the Vliegende and Schotel families lived there."

  "There were no such families," Chicken Nancy said. "The family that built the house was called Van Vreemdeling."

  "Van Vreemdeling?"

  "Van Vreemdeling. Vliegende and schotel are Dutch words meaning 'flying saucer.'"

  "What? There were flying saucers back then?" I asked.

  "Why not?" Chicken Nancy asked. "I am going to guess you have seen them landing behind the old stone barn."

  "Yes, we have," Molly said.

  "Well, they have been doing that for much longer than I have been alive, and I have been alive a hundred and fourteen years."

  "You're a hundred and fourteen years old?"

  "Approximately. Records weren't kept very carefully for black people."

  "It's remarkable," Professor Tag said. "You don't look a day over ninety. To what do you attribute your youthfulness and vigor?"

  "I come from a long-lived family, and I never touch fried food," Chicken Nancy said.

  "You were saying, the family was called Van Vreemdeling. And you know this because...?"

  "Because I was born on the property—the house was Schiksal-Nanie, which is the proper way of saying my name. It means 'dirge of fate,' or 'elegy of destiny.' And my mother was born on the property. She was owned by the Van Vreemdelings."

  "'Owned'? How do you mean 'owned'?" I asked.

  "She was a slave. My mother was a slave, and I am the child of a slave."

  "How is that possible?" Molly asked. "This is New York. Slavery was in the Southern states."

  "Slavery was in the Southern states until the end of the Civil War in 1865," Chicken Nancy said. "There was slavery in New York until about 1827, and even after that fugitive slaves from the South could be pursued and caught here—legally—and sent back south."

  "So you were born when your mother was only ten or fifteen years out of slavery," Professor Tag said.

  "Yes, and of course she remembered it quite well, and told me all about it. It feels odd to think how recent and how close to home it was, doesn't it?"

  "It does indeed," the professor said.

  "Sojourner Truth, who was born just across the river, as a slave, lived until 1883, by which time the electric light and the telephone had been invented and were coming into general use, and she probably saw an early automobile or even took a ride in one."

  "Who was Sojourner Truth?" I asked.

  "Oh, you had better read up on her," Chicken Nancy said. "She was one of the smartest women of her century, and did important things. I met her more than once. And she began as a slave like my mother. But you want to know about the house and the Van Vreemdelings, and what happened there.

  "Cornelius Van Vreemdeling had a brassworks, the first one in the colonies. They spun and stamped things out of brass, especially the popular Van Vreemdeling kwispedor."

  "What was that?"

  "A cuspidor, a spittoon, thing you spit in—they had them everywhere in those days, and Van Vreemdeling got rich selling them, and bought the big piece of land, and built the big house, and became a member of the aristocracy. He was a patroon spittoon tycoon, and later made another fortune importing pineapples.

  "But the Van Vreemdelings were strange, and kept to themselves. The people were uneasy about them, and told strange stories about the things that went on at Spookhuizen."

  "The lights in the sky?" I asked.

  "Yes, those. And the family had an unusual appearance. I have a portrait of Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling, who was Cornelius's granddaughter and was a friend of my mother's."

  Chicken Nancy went to an old bureau, opened a drawer, and took out a very small painting in a frame. She handed it to me. It was a portrait of a girl about my age, wearing old-fashioned clothes.

  She had cat whiskers just like mine!

  CHAPTER 16

  Tea for Three

  I was surprised, amazed, and curious. While I was being all those things, and thinking of what I wanted to ask first, Chicken Nancy said, "The water is boiling. I will make the tea. This pot is for all of us, Audrey and Professor Tag—and this little pot is for Molly. This will make you sane."

  "What's in it?" Molly asked.

  "Mint leaves. I grow them myself."

  "And what is in the other tea?"

  "Mint also, but yours is a special kind. Take a sip."

  "Mint leaves will cure madness?" Molly asked.

  "How does it taste?"

  "It's good."

  "Drink it all up."

  "How do you know this will work?" Molly asked.

  "I am a one-hundred-and-fourteen-year-old wise woman," Chicken Nancy said. "If I didn't know about things like this, who would?"

  "How long until I'm sane?" Molly asked.

  "Have you finished your tea?"

  "Yes."

  "It will have worked by now."

  "I feel about the same."

  "You weren't all that crazy."

  "So I'm cured?"

  "Yes."

  "Imagine that," Molly said.

  "Um, this other tea..." Professor Tag began.

  "It won't do a thing. Enjoy it. You'll be as crazy as ever," Chicken Nancy said.

  "Thank you," Professor Tag said. "It's just that I wouldn't want to do anything to upset the delicate balance of my mind."

  "I understand completely," Chicken Nancy said.

  Weer had placed his great shaggy head on Molly's knee, and she was scratching him behind the ears.

  "Would you like to stay here with Weer and me while you get used to no longer being a nutbar?" Chicken Nancy asked Molly.

  "Well, if I am no longer insane, there is no point going back to the mental hospital," Molly said. "And I don't know how long I can continue imposing on Audrey's employers—I've been sleeping on a cot in her room."

  "You may stay here, and Audrey is welcome to visit you, of course," Chicken Nancy said.

  "That is very kind of you," Molly said. "Thank you."

&nb
sp; I would never have said anything, but I felt a little relieved. I liked Molly very much, but rooming with a dwerg had drawbacks. She didn't seem to need a lot of sleep and was very active at night, bouncing around the room and climbing the bookshelves while humming and making sound effects with her mouth, usually explosions, motorcycles, and creaking doors. Of course, now that she wasn't crazy maybe those things would have stopped, but I was satisfied that she accepted Chicken Nancy's invitation.

  CHAPTER 17

  Questions

  I was about to ask Chicken Nancy about the picture of Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling, with the cat whiskers, but Professor Tag got his question in first.

  "We first thought of coming to see you because we had some funny experiences with Spookhuizen," he said.

  "The Van Vreemdeling mansion," Chicken Nancy corrected him. "It was never called Spookhuizen, which means 'haunted house,' when people lived there."

  "The Van Vreemdeling mansion," Professor Tag said. "It doesn't seem to behave like a well-behaved house ought to behave."

  "Let me guess," Chicken Nancy said. "When you tried to approach it, it moved away from you."

  "It did!"

  "And it may have even disappeared and reappeared."

  "Only Audrey noticed it doing that," Professor Tag said.

  "Perfectly normal," Chicken Nancy said. "Nothing to be concerned about."

  "Perfectly normal? For a house to move around, and become invisible?"

  "Not normal for a house," Chicken Nancy said. "If a house behaved like that it would be highly unusual to say the least. But that about which you ask is not a house."

  "Not a house?"

  "Not."

  "If not, then what?"

  "It is complicated to explain."

  "I am a professor. I can understand anything," Professor Tag said.

  "Of course. But I want the children to understand too, so you will forgive me if I use an example to illustrate."

  "Certainly."

  Chicken Nancy handed Professor Tag an object. "What do you take this to be?" she asked him.

  The professor held the object, which was flat, about the size of a saucer, and reddish in color. "It is heavy. It is hard. It is smooth." He dug into his rucksack and produced a magnifying glass, and looked through it. "It has a complicated pattern of colors, predominantly a dark brownish red, and also lighter reds, touches of yellow, orange, blue-green, and black or very dark brown. Parts of it are very light and slightly translucent. I would take this to be a combination of various minerals, including iron, copper, possibly cobalt, manganese oxides, and quartz. The pattern suggests the structure of vegetation, or the grain of wood. So, I would take this to be a sample of petrified wood."

  "That is correct," Chicken Nancy said. "I got it in Arizona in 1905. Now, can you tell me what petrified wood is?"

  "Yes, I can," Professor Tag said. "It is wood turned to stone. It is a type of fossil. Wood becomes buried under sediment, because of a flood or some other natural occurrence. The wood is preserved from rotting away because of a lack of oxygen. Mineral-rich water flowing through the sediment deposits minerals in the cells of the wood, and as the cellulose and chemicals that compose the wood decay away, the minerals retain the exact form and appearance it originally had."

  "So is what you hold in your hand a piece of wood?"

  "No, it is a piece of stone."

  "But it has the exact appearance of a piece of wood?"

  "Yes."

  "And it is identical to an actual piece of wood that once existed?"

  "Certainly."

  "Where is that piece of wood?"

  "It is gone. It no longer exists."

  "Now, if instead of handing it to you I showed you a photograph of it, what would you think it was?"

  "Piece of wood."

  "It looks exactly like a piece of wood?"

  "Exactly."

  "But it is not wood, not in any way except for its form and appearance?"

  "Are you telling us that Spookhuizen, or the Van Vreemdeling mansion, is a petrified house?"

  "Sort of. There was a house, but it is gone. Not a bit of it remains. But every bit of it has been replaced with something else," Chicken Nancy said.

  "But not stone," Professor Tag said.

  "Not stone."

  "So what we saw is a sort of fossil house, but not petrified, not turned into stone," Professor Tag said. "It is turned into something else, but what?"

  "What do you know about the house from your own observation?" Chicken Nancy asked.

  "It looks like a house. The girls say they saw the flying saucers, or whatever they are, seem to enter it, or join with it in some way. And it moves about, seemingly in response to things in its vicinity, such as us trying to approach it."

  "What category of thing moves about?" Chicken Nancy asked.

  "Living things?"

  "Have a Dutch cookie," Chicken Nancy said.

  "It's alive?" the professor asked, munching a cookie.

  "Can you think of a better explanation?" Chicken Nancy asked.

  CHAPTER 18

  Quick!

  "So instead of a living or once-living thing becoming a nonliving, mineral thing as in the process of petrification..." Professor Tag said.

  "Assuming mineral things are nonliving," Chicken Nancy said.

  "You are suggesting that a nonliving thing, such as a house..."

  "Assuming houses are nonliving."

  "...has changed in every detail to a living thing that has the exact same form and appearance, only it is alive and it can even move around."

  "Yes."

  "Well, as crazy as I am, and have been, man and boy for more than forty years, that is one of the craziest ideas I have ever heard."

  "And yet it has a ring of truth to it, does it not?" Chicken Nancy said.

  "I must admit, it does ... for some reason," the professor said.

  The professor and Chicken Nancy fell silent. It seemed they were both thinking about the phenomenon of the reverse-petrified house. I was thinking about asking Chicken Nancy about the picture of the cat-whiskered girl, but Weer began to bark, loudly and urgently.

  Chicken Nancy sprang to her feet. She reached into an iron kettle and brought out a handful of thick, greasy-looking cigars.

  "Quick! Everyone, take one of these cheap cigars and light it! Then run outside and puff smoke everywhere!"

  "But ... but ... none of us smokes!" I said.

  "It doesn't matter," Chicken Nancy said. "Here are kitchen matches. Just light one end and suck on the other—then blow the smoke out. Blow it everywhere! Hurry! Hurry outside! Get your cigars going! I will explain everything later."

  Something that came as no surprise to me was that it was just about impossible to disobey Chicken Nancy when she told you to do something. I ran outside with the others. The cigar caught fire easily, and I sucked and puffed mouthfuls of smoke. It smelled like something between burning toast and tarpaper, and it tasted awful.

  "Blow the smoke everywhere!" Chicken Nancy said. She was puffing a cigar herself. The clearing around the little cottage was filling with clouds of stinking blue smoke. Weer was running in circles, barking wildly.

  It wasn't long before I began to feel sick. Molly was quite green. The professor was slightly green. Even Chicken Nancy was a little greenish.

  "I think we can stop now," she said. "Thanks for your help."

  I was dizzy. Things were swimming. I sat down on the ground. The professor was leaning against a tree. Molly had a disturbing expression on her face, and disappeared behind a bush.

  "You said you would explain," the professor said. "Will you do that now?"

  "Yes," said Chicken Nancy, who was not looking so well herself. "He can make himself invisible, or nearly invisible. You can see him against a thick fog—or smoke. If we had gotten outside in time and puffed enough smoke, it would have caused him to show up. Weer is a sort of sensor—he heard him or sensed him—I don't know how he does it. But apparently
he had moved on before we got the smokescreen going."

  "He? Who?" the professor asked.

  "The Muffin Man."

  "The Muffin Man?"

  "Yes. Do you know the Muffin Man?"

  CHAPTER 19

  Yes, I Know the Muffin Man

  "Do you mean the local legend or local mythical Muffin Man?" Professor Tag asked. "The one who is said to live in Dreary Lane?"

  "So you have heard of him," Chicken Nancy said.

  "It is believed he was Matthias Krenzer, the old Dutch censor," Professor Tag said. "He stole the censer from the Old Dutch Church."

  "Yes, that is the one."

  "After stealing the censer, he lost his position as censor and became the town cleanser, cleansing the sidewalks and the steps of houses."

  "You are indeed a learned fellow," Chicken Nancy said. "Yes, Matthias Krenzer, the old Dutch censor, who stole the censer, and became an old Dutch cleanser, later opened a small muffinery and became known as the Muffin Man."

  "And Weer, the dog, is an old Dutch censor and cleanser sensor?" the professor asked.

  "What's a censer?" I asked.

  "Thing you burn incense in," Molly said. "They use them in churches."

  "But as I understand it, Matthias Krenzer lived a couple hundred years ago."

  "You understand correctly," Chicken Nancy said.

  "And he is still around?"

  "It would appear so."

  "That would make him an extremely old person," I said.

  "Or a ghost or something," Molly said.

  "Or something," Chicken Nancy said. "By the way, Molly, how are you feeling?"

  "Pretty sane, I think," Molly said. "It feels a little strange."

  "Wouldn't you like to go get your things and then come back here before it gets dark?" Chicken Nancy asked. "I don't want you wandering around at night with the Muffin Man in the neighborhood."

  "Okay," Molly said. "I have a bag and a couple of things in Audrey's room at the bookshop. I'll go get them. Audrey, you want to come with me?"

  "Before I find out more about the Muffin Man and other things?" I asked.

  "I can explain all that later," Chicken Nancy said. "If you like, you are welcome to come back with Molly and stay for a while. Be sure to tell the Gleybners where you'll be."

 
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